Cutting Ball’s ‘Tontlawald’ successfully embraces the legacy of the great Jerzy Grotowski

(Charles Kruger)

This reviewer is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

“Tontlawald” by Eugenie Chan, produced by Cutting Ball Theatre. Co-Directors: Paige Rogers, Annie Paladino. Choreographer: Laura Arrington. Production Designer: Silvie Deutsch. Lighting Designer: David Sinaiko. 

Ensemble: Madeline H. D. Brown, Rebecca Frank, Sam Gibbs, Cindy Im, Marilet Martinez, Wiley Naman Strasser, Meg O’Connor, Liz Wand

In the decade of the 1960s, the most famous and influential theatre director in Europe and America was the Polish genius Jerzy Grotowski, founder of the Polish Lab Theatre, offshoots of which continue to produce work to this day, more than 50 years later. Grotowski’s ideas were complex and difficult, involving new and innovative theories about acting in and staging plays. For example, in one famous production of Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, he actually seated the audience as guests at Faustus’ dinner table.

With his theory of “Poor Theatre“, Grotowski rejected the use of props and sets in favor of the actor’s body. Rather than create specific settings for actors to play in, he focused on creating an atmosphere, using candles, for example, or having the actors score the action with rhythmic beating on their own bodies.

Even after half a century, a performance influenced by Grotowski’s ideas will be experienced as radical, experimental and unexpected. He was that far ahead of his time.

Ensemble members (top) Sam Gibbs and (bottom) Wiley Naman Strasser play in the Tontlawald, while the Ensemble watches. Photo credit: Cutting Ball.

That brings us to The Cutting Ball Theatre and their world premiere production of Tontlawald. Director Paige Rogers has attended workshops with Venezuelan director Renee Torres, who worked directly with Grotowski. As a result of those experiences, Rogers sought and obtained funding to commission Eugenie Chan to create an original script for Tontlawald, to be developed for production in a Grotowski-influenced laboratory style, of which the idea is to use the actors’ own bodies to create a unique theatrical language.

The actors sing (hauntingly and beautifully), dance, chant, pound, contort, howl, sweat, and emote in ways you will not often see in conventional  theatre as they tell the strange tale of Lona who flees her cruel stepmother to live in the Tontlawald — the ghost forest. The plot involves mysterious deaths, ghost figures, a transformation into a bird and other evocative elements. All of this is not so much a clear story as an excuse for actors to push themselves physically and vocally to bring the audience into a new world. They succeed.

To discuss Tontlawald in terms of ordinary plays and stories is impossible. It is not a play in the ordinary sense, but more like a religious or shamanic ritual. The actors are not so much telling a story (although the story is there and it’s a good one) as they are taking us along on a ritually-induced archetypal mystical experience.

If you are curious about Grotowski’s legacy, you will not want to miss Tontlawald. It will show you what all the excitement was about.

I encountered Growtowski directly years ago when he was in residence at the University of California in Irvine and I was attending graduate school. I believe he would have given his enthusiastic blessing to this production.

This sort of thing isn’t for every type of audience, but if you are a true theatre lover and willing to explore experimental work, Tontlawald is not to be missed.

Tontlawald continues at The Cutting Ball Theatre through March 11, 2012. For further information click here.

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